Every other article of Christian faith, every theological statement, is little more than a footnote to this central belief: my entire life is a response to a lover whose gaze and call have created me, named me, and compelled a response.
Yet the reality of this love is also the most unbelievable, literally incredible aspect of Christian faithunbelievable in the sense of a belief that truly governs and frames our entire lives, such that we live as if Christ really does look upon us and, smiling, calls out our name. It never occurs to us that, though unworthy, we might be made worthy. Overwhelmed by the sheer destructiveness of which we human beings are capable, we can only find the figure of Christ and his message at best quaint or irrelevant, at worst a cruel hoax. True, we might answer yes on those surveys that ask us if we believe in God. But our burgeoning weapons stockpiles, xenophobic immigration laws, compulsive consumerism, widespread chronic depression and addictions of all kinds all suggest a very different belief, a very different answer to the question, Do you believe in God?
In the Christian tradition, the liberation and empowerment that God offers is symbolized above all in the figure of the crucified and risen Christ. And it is the poor who are the unlikely witnesses to the central claim of the Christian faith: God so loved the world.... Be the problems of the truth’ of Christ what they may, writes the Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, his credibility is assured as far as the poor are concerned, for he maintained his nearness to them to the end. The Cross is the guarantee that he does, in fact, remain with us, that he does, in fact, walk with us even today.
It is not the privileged but the abandoned who can teach us about community, not the satiated but the hungry who can teach us about bread, not the victors but the crucified victims who can teach us about the resurrection. The danger, warns the great 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil, is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. Therein lies despair.
Put out your hand, and place it in my side....
When the risen Christ appears to the cowering disciples, he shows them his wounds. Indeed, he demands that the disciples look at the wounds and urges Thomas to put his hand in his side. What was surely an extraordinarily shocking scene is powerfully depicted in the famous painting by Caravaggio of Thomas peering curiously into the wound and probing deep inside, as if to examine just how deep it is. What must Thomas have thought at that moment? Or any of the other disciples in the room? What must have been running through their minds or, more important, through their heartsthey who only three days earlier had fled in terror from their friend as he was being dragged off to Calvary?
Luke tells us they were startled and frightened (24:37) upon seeing this strange spirit enter. And no wonder! The disciples had probably assumed that now that Jesus was dead, they could put the past behind them, chalk it up to misguided idealism and go on to live the lives of ordinary fishermen and tax collectorsa little, perhaps, like those of us who have been able to put behind us the failed ideals and hopes of the 1960’s and move on to become successful investment bankers, lawyers and college professors.
Into that seemingly secure room walks Jesus with his wounds, to remind his friends of that troubling past, to prick consciences that had just begun to find some equilibrium, some sense of closure. He does not say Let bygones be bygones, or Forgive and forget. Instead, Jesus forces them to confront the painful consequences of their abandonment and betrayal: Look and see.... The Caravaggio painting takes dramatic liberty with the scriptural text: Jesus literally grabs Thomas’s hand at the wrist and thrusts his fingers into the wounda second lance, as Alejandro Garcia-Rivera notes, that must now restore what had been ruptured by that first lance on Calvary.
Far from implying that past suffering is forgotten, Christ’s bodily resurrection involves the realization that past injustices are never erased by future victories. Past suffering remains forever a part of the history of the resurrection; the wounds remain forever inscribed on the body. Like St. Paul, Christians will always preach a crucified and risen Christ. The resurrection of the body does not justify the crucifixion; it justifies the crucified victimthe whole victim, abandoned soul and scarred body. If the crucifixion was bodily, so too is the resurrection. Anything less would be an injustice to the victim.
Even more incredible, Jesus approaches them with open arms and invites them to become reconciled and to share a meal. The memory of innocent suffering, inscribed on the body of the resurrected Jesus, confronts the disciples not in order to condemn them but precisely to invite them to reconciliationand to participation in the resurrection. If it is truly the victory of life over death, the resurrection must vindicate and restore not just the life of an individual called Jesus Christ. The resurrection must also vindicate and restore the relationships that themselves have helped define Christhis compassionate relationships with the poor, sinners, prostitutes and other unsavory characters. The resurrection of Christ’s body must be more than internal life for an autonomous, isolated individual; it must be the resurrection of Cristo Compañero, Christ-as-companion. The resurrection is the victory of companionship over abandonment, the victory of community over estrangement.
Denial of Suffering, Rejection of the Poor
The refusal to acknowledge Christ’s wounds, wounds that appear on his raised body, is the mortal sin (in the most literal sense of the term), for it leads inevitably to the death of others and, indeed, to our own death. All pain, all suffering appear in our lives as unwanted reminders that we are not in control of our lives, that we are indeed vulnerable. Death is the ultimate threat to our sense of security and invulnerability. So too are all those partial deaths that foreshadow our common end: illness, old age, poverty, failure, abandonment. Our consumer culture is driven by the promise that all these forms of human vulnerability are avoidableif we have a large enough bank account, the right kind of insurance, the latest model automobile or the most effective deodorant (Never let them see you sweat).
Authentic human relationships of mutual love and trust are also suspect, since they involve a dimension of vulnerability and even pain in the face of an other who, however much we may seek to control, always remains beyond our control. So we surround ourselves with things that promise security and invulnerability. We run from persons, who will demand vulnerability and the possibility of pain. We fall in love with cars, houses, mobile phones and computers, even as we remain unattached to human persons.
But not just any persons. We distance ourselves from weak, powerless, vulnerable persons in particularwounded persons, who are especially threatening to our sense of invulnerability. They are the mirrors of our own souls; their very existence in our midst is so terrifying that we must eradicate them or at least hide them from view, get them off the streets, so that we won’t have to see them and their uncomfortable wounds. By denying death, we inflict it.
And we inflict it not just on others but on ourselves. The corollary of this pathological fear of our own fragility is the despair that lies just beneath the surface of our most successful communities and families. To scratch that well-manicured veneer is to discover the silent despondency that manifests itself in a myriad of destructive ways (for example, depression, addictions, broken relationships). The suicide rate among suburban white males, the highest for any demographic group, is the corollary of the murder rate among inner-city African American and Latino males. The former is a direct result of our failure as a society to confront the latter. Tragically, our teenagers are taking quite seriously the postmodern call for the erasure of the subject.
There is thus a direct, intimate relationship between the struggle for social justice and the possibility of experiencing ourselves as loved, experiencing our own lives as gifts of an extravagant Lover. The act of solidarity with the wounded other is, at the same time, an acknowledgment of our common woundedness, our common powerlessness. It is also an acknowledgment of our complicity in the infliction of those wounds. In the end, what we fear most is not those persons but ourselves, our weak, fragile, vulnerable, wounded selves. So we avoid touching, or even seeing, the wounds. We avoid risking the act of solidarity, or companionship with the victims of history, not because we hate them but because we hate ourselves.
Galilee, the Reconciled Community
The resurrection story in the Gospels does not stop, of course, with the risen Christ’s encounter with the apostles in that closed room. The apostles are commanded to go to Galilee: Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee (Matt 28:7). Then Jesus said to them, Do not be afraid; go and tell my disciples to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’ (Matt 28:10). The renewed, reconciled community will have Galilee as its birthplace. It is there that the fullness of the resurrection will be revealed.
It is no mere coincidence that in the Synoptic accounts, Jesus comes from Nazareth, in Galilee, meets his end in Jerusalem and, finally, returns to Galilee, where he appears to the apostles after his resurrection (Mark 14:28; Matt 26:32, 28:7, 10, 16). Like everything in the Bible, the choice of Galilee has theological significance. As Virgilio Elizondo notes, Galilee was an outer region, far from the center of Judaism in Jerusalem of Judea and a crossroads of the great caravan routes of the world. It was a region of mixed peoples and languages. Contiguous with non-Jewish territories and geographically distant from Jerusalem, Galilee was often viewed by first-century Jews, Douglas Edwards tells us, as a Jewish enclave in the midst of unfriendly’ gentile seas...; hence its centuries-old name Galilee of the Gentiles.
Their religious-cultural diversity made Galileans objects of resentment and opposition. The Jews of Judea looked down upon the Galilean Jews, says Horsley, for they considered the Galilean Jews ignorant about the Law and the rules of the Temple [and] contaminated in many ways by their daily contacts with the pagans. The Jewish establishment in Jerusalem could not imagine that God’s word could be revealed among the impure people of the borderland: Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee (John 7:52).
Yet it is precisely in the midst of contaminated, corrupted believers that God takes on human flesh. God chooses what is low and despised in the world (1 Cor 1:28). Elizondo calls this the Galilee principle. He writes: That God has chosen to become a Galilean underscores the great paradox of the incarnation, in which God becomes the despised and lowly of the world. In becoming a Galilean, God becomes the fool of the world for the sake of the world’s salvation.
It is precisely in the midst of this racial, cultural and religious impurity that the raised Christ, the now-glorified witness to God’s power and love, will be encountered as well. He has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him (Matt 28:7). The impure and dangerous culture of the borderland is the privileged locus of God’s self-revelation and the place where the new church will discover its mission. If they are to discover the full meaning of the resurrection, the disciples must venture into that risky territory.
For the risen Christ, the borderland becomes itself the wound that terrifies, but which we are invited to see and touch. In the evocative words of the Chicana writer Gloria Anazaldúa, the border is una herida abierta (an open wound). Indeed, Jesus’ parallel commands to place your hand in my side and to go to Galilee both strike at the very heart of our human fragility. Both imply that if we are to recognize the crucified and risen Lord, we must risk defilement. We must touch the untouchable.
At this time in the life of our church, we are all called to deeper confidence in the spirit’s power to reveal God’s liberating presence precisely in those places in our church and world from which, we are convinced, nothing good can come. Like the disciples, we must have the courage to leave behind the spiritual and theological security of Tabor for the unexpected otherness of Calvary, the fragile if comforting security of the upper room for the foreignness and vulnerability of Galilee. Jesus asks us in fact to venture into Galilee, not only to proclaim the good news, but to discover it there: Be not afraid...there you will see me.
The crucified and risen Christ thus empowers us to overcome the fear of proclaiming the good news among unfriendly peoples. But Christ also empowers us to overcome the fear of discovering the good news among unfriendly and impure peoples. The disciple need not fear the impurity of Galilee and its surroundings. We should remember Cardinal Newman’s wise words: The stronger and more living is an idea, that is, the more powerful hold it exercises on the minds of men [and women], the more able is it to dispense with safeguards, and trust to itself against the danger of corruption. This does not imply some sort of naïve idealism; Jesus does not do away with borders or demand that they be eliminated. Rather, he transforms them from instruments of exclusion and division to loci of revelation. If you want to see me, the raised Jesus tells us, you have to risk going to that very place where your fathers denied there could be prophets. You have to risk the possibility that the purity of your faith will be threatened. But be not afraid. In the very midst of that vulnerability, you will see me. In the midst of that fear of corruption and contamination, you will see me. On the border between belief and unbelief, you will see me.
Has Jesus Christ truly risen? Has he looked into our eyes and, smiling, called out our names? Ask Thomas the Apostle. Ask the impure, corrupted believers living in the borderlands. Ask the lowly and rejected of the world, whom the world has thrown out. Ask the many Galileans living among us today.